In among the images of a roving Riyad Mahrez, a delightful Dele Alli and a maudlin Manuel Pellegrini sit the Gunners, the one-time darlings of this bizarre Premier League title race but now cast in the role of the bad guys who could ruin Leicester City’s Hollywood ending. Or Tottenham Hotspur’s largely British-based story full of impressive young stars, come to think of it.
Ever since Joe Allen swept home Liverpool’s late equaliser at Anfield in mid-January, we’ve been stuck in “same old Arsenal” territory, as the old fears about the Gunners and their mental strength in the business end of the season came to the fore.
They failed to score against Stoke City, Chelsea and Southampton as vital points were dropped and camp was set up in their “usual” fourth position. But when they did finally score a Premier League goal for the first time in 328 minutes at Bournemouth on Sunday (after getting away with Mathieu Flamini's reckless early lunge that should have been a red card—true bad-guy behaviour), they liked doing it so much that they scored again 88 seconds later.
Those quickfire strikes from Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain—a welcome moment of productivity for the latter—allowed the Gunners to remember what it was like to hold a comfortable Premier League lead, something that they hadn’t done since Bournemouth visited the Emirates Stadium in their final match of 2015, again losing 2-0.
Sunday’s game wasn’t over at 2-0 after 24 minutes, of course.
Bournemouth have shown enough during what has been a largely impressive battle against relegation to suggest that they were always going to pose some problems to the Gunners, and that they did.
According to BBC Sport’s match report, the Cherries had 17 shots at goal to Arsenal’s 10. Points aren’t handed out for such things, though, and there was always a sense that the Gunners had their opponents where they wanted them after those first-half goals.
Bournemouth’s Matt Ritchie almost became the symbol of his side’s frustrations as he lashed effort after effort off target, and for Arsene Wenger, there would have been a sense of enjoyment at the “game management”—a phrase seemingly invented for football managers—on show from his team.
Given his side’s recent struggles in front of goal, the fact that the three points were virtually secured after the first quarter of the game would have given Wenger immense satisfaction—and also a drop or two of relief.
Playing as the final member of the top four in action over the weekend, Arsenal would have known that their rivals were watching and hoping for a slip, but they might as well have changed the channel after 24 minutes.
And in the end, the game served as the perfect appetiser to the main course that is Arsenal’s make-or-break month.
Sunday’s lunchtime meeting with Leicester City at the Emirates Stadium suddenly looks like the biggest Premier League game of the season so far, and then there are trips to Old Trafford and White Hart Lane to come inside the Gunners’ next three league fixtures. Barcelona visit north London before those.
These are the types of challenges Wenger has always faced, of course, but they seem all the more crucial in this particular season.
Just as would have been the case had Liverpool won it in 2013/14—a season in which Arsenal, according to the Mirror, spent 128 days (48.5 per cent of the campaign) at the top of the table—it would surely reflect badly on the Gunners if Leicester were to complete this remarkable tale and win the title this season.
Arsenal would be seen as the team to have missed out in such an abnormal campaign, one in which glory was seemingly there for them if only they had the required mettle to take it.
That’s harsh, but the recent success of Manchester City, Chelsea and even Manchester United means that perception rules all here, and it would be Wenger’s face staring back at you from the memes and the back pages.
There’s still time to avoid all that, though, to regain the poise they showed earlier in the campaign and to make a renewed assault in their season’s crucial month.
Bournemouth, and a crucial 88 seconds, could be just the start of that.
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